I figured if I keep reading Christmas novels, eventually I’ll find one I can rave about…and here it is!
This book is a twofer – two stories told in alternating chapters that are set over a hundred years apart. The obvious inspiration of the historical story neatly focuses the modern day one, and I loved them both.
“Christmas Bells” is a Henry Wordsworth Longfellow poem (see below) that was turned into a Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Chiaverini tells the story of how the poem came to be written, which is a mostly a biography of Longfellow, and she does a terrific job. Starting at the beginning of the Civil War, right before the first shots are fired, we learn how Longfellow lived, the tragedies that befell him and his family, and about his home and its historical significance in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The alternating stories are about St. Margaret’s, a Catholic church in the nearby town of Watertown. Sophia is a music teacher whose job is threatened by budget issues. She also is the children’s choir director at the church. Her accompanist is in love with her, but it is an unrequited love due to various factors. Stories also are spun about two of the children in the choir, Charlotte and her younger brother, whose father is serving in Afghanistan.
One of the most memorable characters in the modern day story is Sister Winifred, a nun who has the rather unnerving habit of talking to herself. But she also has the uncanny ability to ferret out truths about her parishioners and the priest that seem other-worldly, or perhaps divine?
This is heartwarming, of course, but also fascinating and beautifully written. This will be the Christmas book I”ll be recommending this season.
11/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™
CHRISTMAS BELLS by Jennifer Chiaverini. Dutton (October 27, 2015). ISBN 978-0525955245. 336p.